The narrative of the royals being unwelcoming to outsiders has never been more widespread. First we had the Duke of Sussex exiling himself to the US because of the “Firm’s” apparent hostility to his new bride. Then The Crown reminded us — possibly not altogether accurately — how the family mistreated Diana.
However, another glamorous bride — despite being an actress, like the Duchess of Sussex — has experienced 12 years as a Windsor and received nothing but warmth. “I’ve been incredibly welcomed with open arms by all of them. I haven’t had a single negative experience,” says Sophie Winkleman, the wife of Lord Freddie Windsor, who is the son of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and 49th in line to the throne. “The Queen’s been wonderful, Prince Charles has been wonderful, Prince William’s been heaven. They’d never tell me off at all if I wanted to play some [racy] role. Everyone’s looked after me. Oh God, please don’t make me sound too gushing.”
“A Source of Distant Admiration”
So why has Lady Frederick, 40, enchanted the Windsors when others have come a-cropper? She is certainly extremely pretty and ultra-sharp, with a degree in English from Cambridge, where she was in the Footlights. She is also possessed of vast charisma, managing to make you feel like her oldest friend as she frets about how her daughters (Isabella, four, and Maud, seven) will cope in a world of social media and Tinder, while at the same time utterly discreet and diplomatic about the in-laws.
I ask after Princess Michael, 75, who has been suffering from coronavirus with symptoms of “extreme fatigue”. “She’s a good, strong woman and she’s in quite good fettle, thank you for asking,” Winkleman says. She hasn’t watched The Crown, and as for Meghan, “I’ve met her a few times over here, but not well enough to get to know her. She certainly has very admirable energy and focus.”
Winkleman grew up in Primrose Hill (today she lives in Chelsea) and attended the private City of London School for Girls. She is the half-sister of the BBC presenter Claudia, with whom she shares a father, the publisher Barry Winkleman, “but we had very separate lives as kids: Claudia lived with her mum and she’s nine years older than me”.
“I wasn’t fazed about becoming a member of the royal family because my father is sort of a socialist bordering on Marxist,” Winkleman says. “So growing up, the royal family wasn’t part of the discussion. There wasn’t a home counties trepidation about them, although of course there was respect.”
As is often the case, Winkleman then dithers, wondering how to reword this. Your mother wasn’t a Mrs Bennet, desperate that you married well, I suggest. “That’s it. My mother wasn’t Mrs Bennet. [The royal family] was just a source of distant admiration. I definitely wasn’t trying to get to Ascot to meet Prince William. My parents gave me confidence. I don’t know how to do it with my own children, but it’s a great gift and it meant I felt I had something to bring to the table. They gave me a good education and that makes you feel you can walk into any group, so it wasn’t too intimidating.”
The Honeymoon Period
Certainly, by the time she met Lord Freddie 13 years ago, after their paths crossed while leaving a club in Soho, Winkleman already had an impressive CV behind her, with roles including Jeremy’s “mental posho” ex-girlfriend Big Suze in Jesse Armstrong’s cult sitcom Peep Show.
The day after their wedding in 2009 in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court, the couple moved to Los Angeles because she had a job starting there two days later. They spent the next seven years there, with Lord Freddie working for his bank, JP Morgan, while Winkleman wrote screenplays for Salma Hayek and Penélope Cruz (“They both loved what I was doing and were wonderfully supportive, but I learnt much later that the exec producer had stopped forwarding them my drafts and told them I’d left the job because she had wanted to hire another writer all along — very rum!”). She also bagged such hefty roles as Walden’s (Ashton Kutcher) girlfriend Zoe in the US sitcom Two and a Half Men (shown in Britain on ITV2), where she stayed for four years.
“I wasn’t fazed about becoming a member of the royal family because my father is sort of a socialist bordering on Marxist.”
She had already tried LA, straight from university, but rapidly fled. “I got a couple of very big parts and a couple of people said, ‘Right, now let’s turn you into a skinny little star,’ and I couldn’t cope at all. I was too sensitive and I would have become weird and eating-disordery.”
Second time round, however, the Windsors had a ball. “It was all very interesting and freeing. LA’s a magical and dynamic place. Freddie did a weekly football match with people from all over the world, which I think was his favorite two hours weekly ever spent.”
The idyll ended after Maud was born and Winkleman decided she needed to live nearer her family. “It was quite painful because it was great for us work-wise, but it wouldn’t have been sustainable with a child.”
From then, Winkleman’s career has been beset by challenges. While giving birth to Isabella, she caught a hospital bug that left her unwell for a year. Finally recovered, in November 2017 she was in a car crash that left her trapped in the back of an upside-down car.
“I was completely lucid throughout. I assumed I was a goner and you just go into a strangely unromantic mode of thinking, ‘Right, this is my last few minutes. I’ve got to do something practical.’ So I was thinking things like, ‘Hope my parents stay well to help Freddie take care of the children, hope he meets someone nice.’”
She was cut free by paramedics, but in hospital learned that she had broken her foot and two bones in her back; it was three days before she learned that she wouldn’t be paralyzed.
A month in hospital was followed by a lengthy and painful recuperation. “It was miserable. It was more than a year before I could pick the girls up, and kids don’t understand that kind of thing.” She was moved by the support of the Prince of Wales, who had his Clarence House cook supply the family with two meals a day “for weeks on end … It was life saving having this massive thing twice daily I didn’t have to worry about,” she says.
Other royals also rallied round. The Duke of Cambridge asked an air ambulance colleague to “take good care of her”, while Sophie, Countess of Wessex, visited her in hospital.
“One Gurgling Mass”
Normal life was just resuming, with a part in a play looming, when coronavirus shut down the world. “I was getting some lovely work again and then this daft lockdown happened. This year I’ve had a few quite interesting offers, but I haven’t been able to take them because I haven’t found a nanny both girls are happy with — oh God, that makes me sound so middle-class and boring.” She is hoping the play will soon resume.
Winkleman is acutely aware that in the scheme of things hers was a cushy lockdown, but she still hated home schooling. “I gave it up after two and a half days, and I didn’t have the tenacity or discipline to do anything with the girls that was interesting or edifying; we just existed in one gurgling mass. And I’ve become immense and my way of losing weight is smoking a lot, which obviously you can’t do with two children, so I don’t know what I’m going to do about it.”
Throughout these maelstroms, Winkleman has flung herself into supporting several charities, mainly children’s, but with Age UK in the mix. “I’m trying to help society’s forgotten strata,” she says.
Clearly, this is more than a frustrated actress’s hobby horse. She becomes incandescent when discussing the wealth gap, which is especially visible on the US west coast. “It totally stinks. These insane millionaires living next to the homeless. They wouldn’t even notice giving $6.6 million to help these people, yet it doesn’t occur to them they’re the same species. What about that Amazon guy [Jeff Bezos]? He does nothing. It’s so grotesque. Our governments need to grow some balls and tax them properly.”
“I’m trying to help society’s forgotten strata.”
Recently, she has become an ambassador for The Big Issue — the magazine sold by the homeless, sales of which have taken an enormous hit in lockdown — having become friends with its founder, John Bird. “Half of the vendors have had to stop selling. We have to get people online to set up subscriptions to the magazine because it is so good.” Her suggestion of Big Issue gift subscriptions for Christmas is so inspired and easy — I immediately set up several.
Winkleman’s network, which includes, just for starters, Princess Eugenie (Maud was a bridesmaid at her wedding), Jamie Oliver (Isabella’s godfather) and Jane Asher, is certainly well placed to cough up. “There are about seven people I always tap for money,” Winkleman says with a chortle. “Then in about June one of them got in touch to say, ‘Sophie, I used to be interested and I want to help, but now I find you very annoying.’ It was very nice of them to tell me off, but I do find it very hard to shut up when these amazing causes are floundering so terribly.”
Once more, the royals are there with “phenomenally brilliant advice”. “Being a member of the royal family gives me a platform and the senior members have helped me hugely in terms of trying to fundraise.”
In many ways — as an actress and a royal — Winkleman seems to have hit the jackpot, high enough up the pecking order to enjoy the perks, but not so high that she encounters the brickbats. “I never understand why the term ‘jobbing actor’ is meant to be insulting. I think it’s deeply complimentary. If you’re working and earning money, which I always have, then what more can you want? The immense pressure of fame is seriously hardcore.” The more beleaguered royal brides might well agree.
Julia Llewellyn Smith is the author of several books, including Lovestruck